Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump declares ‘I’m a wartime president’, echoing George W. Bush after 9/11. For both men, the jaw-jutting self-flattery was absurd as both had been draft dodgers during the Vietnam war. W. used the family name and connections to secure a place in the Texas Air National Guard, Trump getting a draft deferment because of bad feet (a condition that was never so debilitating as to slow down his golf game). 9/11 did produce two real wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, so W. had some claim to the title. But should we really be talking about a war against a virus?
It’s a strange kind of war that drafts you to stay at home playing Xbox and watching the shopping channel from your couch. The front line of this ‘war’ is the hospitals. They certainly have blood, sweat, toil and tears, as well as death, but doctors and nurses are not soldiers and the only fighting and killing is done by the patients’ immune cells. The confusion about our current situation comes from many generations of journalists and politicians lazily reaching for ‘war’ as a metaphor. We’ve had a war on terror, a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on want, a war on science, even a war on sugar, and let’s not forget Trump’s war on the media.
In Britain this year, pestilence was preceded by floods, caused by weeks of unusually heavy rain. My local TV station pronounced a river that had burst its banks the ‘front line’ in a ‘battle’ against flooding. The reporter’s frantic script was undercut by pictures of this frontline, waves gently lapping against the side of a road, a field become a tranquil lake. As George Orwell argued, clichés are often metaphors that have lost their force from overuse. They are a substitute for critical thought, resulting in stale imagery and a lack of precision. In other times, illness has been the metaphor we lazily reach for: a cancer within the presidency, the virus of corruption. Coronavirus is serious enough and dramatic enough without having to use the war metaphor.
No matter. Trump’s advance team carefully positioned him to salute in front of a Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, as it slipped out of Norfolk naval station, heading for New York. Sailors stood at attention along the dock: a glorious 2020 campaign ad at taxpayers’ expense. Speaking in Norfolk, Trump told New Yorkers: ‘We’re fighting for you.’ This followed remarks from the podium at the White House: ‘We’re at war. In a true sense, we’re at war. And we’re fighting an invisible enemy. Think of that.’ But two years earlier, Trump had spiked his administration’s guns, abolishing the pandemic planning cell in the National Security Council. To be fair to Trump, this was done by his national security adviser, John Bolton. The president almost certainly did not know it was happening, a defense he can truthfully use for many of the poor decisions taken within his administration and in his name. But Trump is firmly pinned to his many weeks of statements dismissing the threat from the virus. His aides are said to have repeatedly failed to get him to discuss it, losing precious time to prepare.
According to one devastating report, when the secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, finally got into the Oval Office, Trump interrupted him to ask when sales of flavored vaping products could start again. Freddy Gray wrote on our website that the Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson had to go on a secret mission to Mar-a-Lago to get the president to take coronavirus seriously. If the worst predictions for coronavirus deaths come true, Trump will regret his initial insouciance. He may even lose the election because of it.
As Carlson has said, the severity of the measures to be used against COVID-19 should not be purely a medical decision but a political one. (How many old people should we allow to die to save the economy?) Maybe the cure is worse than the disease. The effects of panic could be worse than both. A friend in Los Angeles says there were long lines outside gun shops in his neighborhood (before they were shut down by the sheriff as nonessential businesses). The British version of this is that toilet paper was so short that some shops had to ration rolls, one per customer. (No such shortages in France: they have bidets.)
The elemental struggle over toilet paper in the UK is far from a Hobbesian state of nature — a ‘war of all against all’ — but it is always sensible to ask: how bad could things get? In the short term, food shortages in Britain are caused by panic buying, but the UK would be vulnerable if the virus were to shut down parts of the global supply chain. Britain produces only half the food it consumes; at least the US is self-sufficient in food. No one’s going to starve because of coronavirus but they might have to pay more for their food and line up to get it. But people will die because of a shortage of ventilators — and if we have this much trouble with a virus that kills, say, one percent of those infected, what would happen with a real plague?
What if there were a virus with the infectiousness of coronavirus but the lethality of Ebola? There may be a number of such viruses or similarly dangerous bacteria frozen in government laboratories around the world, developed as biological weapons or to help defend against them. Most states have signed the treaty outlawing biological weapons but some — such as Israel — haven’t, and a number of signatories — such as Russia — may not be observing the ban. A report last year by the Belfer Center at Harvard said that North Korea could produce a ton of biological weapons a year and has weaponized 13 different germs. These included anthrax, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, botulism, Korean hemorrhagic fever, smallpox and the bubonic plague.
It has been said that pound for pound, biological weapons are more lethal than nuclear weapons. A gallon of weaponized anthrax could kill every human being on earth. (It would contain enough spores for eight billion doses, if correctly distributed.) The peculiar evil of biological weapons is that once deployed, they cannot be contained. They spread, like any living thing. And biological weapons are the poor man’s WMD. Making germ weapons can be done on a small scale, without much of an industrial base, and is far cheaper than making even a single hydrogen bomb. It is foolish to think that they would never be used.
This is because of the Dead Hand, a mechanism for retaliation that — following an awful but undeniable strategic logic — may have been secretly adopted by many states that have weapons of mass destruction, especially the small, dangerous and unpredictable ‘rogue states’. The Soviet Union gave us the term Dead Hand, or Mertvaya Ruka in Russian. It was a doomsday machine: in the face of a nuclear attack, missiles would be launched immediately and automatically without any order from the center. In fact, if the leadership were no longer there to give an order to stop, there would be no way to prevent a launch — and Armageddon.
The Mertvaya Ruka was the Soviets’ attempt to deter a western first strike. First strike isn’t just a first use of nuclear weapons but a massive surprise attack, waves of missiles designed to destroy all of an enemy’s offensive capability. From the point of view of a country like North Korea, a Dead Hand strategy might be not just logical but inevitable. And, much smaller and weaker than the Soviet Union, North Korea would have to do this with biological weapons. Defectors from North Korea have told horrific stories of these weapons being tested on political prisoners and residents of state homes for ‘abandoned individuals with disabilities’.
A friend who has advised the US government on biological weapons for years told me he woke at night worrying that sleeper agents from North Korea were already in the US, armed with smallpox. Smallpox spreads easily and rapidly, person-to-person, and kills a third of its victims. As many as half a billion people died from it in the last century alone. My friend’s nightmare was that a few vials of the virus would be left open on the New York subway. At the kitchen table for this discussion was a former senior official in the Obama administration who had been responsible for the country’s biological weapons defenses. He said that precisely because of this scenario, the US had stockpiled 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine, nearly enough for every man, woman and child in the country.
So America would probably be able to deal with smallpox (though of course in the event of an attack against America, it would spread to other countries). But the US might have no stockpile of vaccine for the modified and enhanced germs that have probably already been created with new gene-editing technology.
If used in an attack, these genetically engineered germs would spread faster, infect more people and resist treatment. This would be a real war involving a virus, not just a metaphorical one. As our response to coronavirus shows, we are not prepared for it.